Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Show me the money!*

Ralitsa Kovacheva, May 7, 2010

While I was waiting for the press conference in the Council of Ministers to begin, I received an e-mail from DG ECFIN of the European Commission. The letter properly informed me that Commissioner Olli Rehn's briefing will start any moment (live streamed on the website of the Commission), who will present the spring economic forecast of the Commission. There were 3 press releases attached in 3 languages and a detailed presentation of the forecast itself for each member country.

While I was reading the documents, the Bulgarian Prime Minister came in with a solid group of Ministers and the press conference started. My mission was to find facts regarding the two most important words: budget review. Because, no matter how hard to believe this is, but the prime minister announced this very important news somehow by the way, between the anti crisis measures and the bets for the VAT increase. More over, this happened in not so big and popular media and without any journalist to feel heat under his feet hearing this word. euinside wrote a day earlier about the expected update, but even some of the most popular economic analysts did not believe it would happen so soon.

The press conference began with a short statement by each minister about the reforms they plan in their sectors. The most detailed was the one of the social minister, who kept on reading numbers and years from his papers as if he would never stop. At last the word was given to the finance minister Simeon Dyankov and I said - aha! But no - he told us only something that we had already known from the prime minister for two days - VAT would not be increased.

Finally, it was the premier's turn and he indeed uttered the most important words “budget review”, followed by an admission about some inevitable left (social) costs, which must be added to the budget. Then a mass pouring into the basket started: money for tobacco growers, who would otherwise starve to death; for the poor (for the same reason); for the state health insurance fund; for the military helicopters and the “Lyulin” highway, because it is a contract, concluded before - part of the "heavy legacy"; for the roads, because we were waiting for tourists; for the “Brussels” bridge boulevard in Sofia, because people got killed there.

The total amount did not become clear however, because just when somebody asked this question, the prime minister was about to get out, a colleague shouted that she desperately needed to learn something about the prisoner from Guantanamo and the press conference was suddenly over. We were told only that 900 million levs (461.5 mn euro) was expected from savings in the state administration. Note that the promised by the finance minister Simeon Dyankov double cuts - not 10, but 20% have been transformed into “up to 20% cost savings”. And I think that this is slightly different. More than 500 million levs (256.4 mn euro) is expected to be collected from “cigarettes, alcohol, fuels and construction iron”. But how exactly will this happen, what are the concrete measures to collect these savings and revenues - it was not clear. Nor whether the sum will be enough to cover the imposing costs added to the budget. Something like - I want one million levs and I already know how to spend it, I just need to find out how to earn it.

Of course, nobody gave the journalists the numbers on paper. They will be published after the changes in the Budget Bill are filed in Parliament for approval. That brings me back to where I started from: to Olli Rehn's briefing. If you watch any briefing in Brussels you’ll see that journalists ask their questions, armed with documents, previously given or sent to them. In order they can be able to ask meaningful and concrete questions. Because it is not about just doing their job, it is about informing society accurately and specifically.

Unlike Brussels, which we all look upon, in Sofia it is different. Indeed, here it might be funnier and more interesting, but I cannot tell you the amount of spending the government will add to this year's budget. Nor how it intends to save 900 million levs from economies in the administration - saving printer toners, cars, toilet paper? I cannot tell you either how the deficit is expected to be affected, except for the fact that Brussels would not be angry. Maybe somewhere these things are written but we have no way to find out.

The Prime Minister is often angry at the media for criticizing him (?) And he wants trust. But, trust with no arguments is faith and faith can exist only in God. The expectations from politicians, especially when they are in power, are different - specificity and transparency. Otherwise, neither we, the journalists - will know, nor you - the public will understand something, nor the government will have a real opposition because nothing is ever certain and the government cannot be caught in a lie.

But as the Prime Minister said himself - well, if the money is not enough, we would make a new review of the budget in autumn. No problem!

*A popular line from “Jerry Maguire” movie